Consultant: Township Should Re-Brand Commercial Zones, Attract Indoor Sports Complex

4Ward Planning’s Todd Poole describes the company’s recommendations at the Township Council’s special Aug. 16 meeting.

The township needs to re-brand two of its commercial zones, modify some zoning regulations and attract a major indoor sports complex development, the Township Council was told at an Aug. 16 special meeting.

Those were some of the recommendations for the township’s Hamilton Street Business District and Corporate Business Park zones presented by the township’s consultant, Todd Poole of Hopewell-based 4Ward Planning. The $80,608 contract for the study was awarded to the company in May, 2016.

Poole led the council and other township leaders in the audience through a series of slides that gave some details on the company’s recommendations. He said the recommendations were derived from personal interviews, research and online polls conducted by the company during the study phase.

Poole’s “Big Idea,” as he phrased it, was for the township to “explore the opportunity to bring a large, multi-use indoor sports complex” in the Corporate Business Zone near Route 287. The complex should be “on the order of 150,000 to 200,000 square feet” and could host indoor soccer, basketball courts and a swimming pool.”

“It could be a lot of things,” he said.

Indoor sports complexes “have a demand in areas such as Franklin Township and certainly in the Somerset-Middlesex (coounty) area,” Poole said.

“The fact that you’re close to Rutgers University also creates demand,” he said.

Additionally, he said, “siting such a facility in your corporate business park would be a shot in the arm for your hotels.”

Poole said he was not recommending that the township build the facility, but, rather, that Franklin “help facilitate this and work in partnership with investors.”

“There’s probably no shortage of interest out there from such business operators,” he said. “This is something that I think could be accomplished in the next two to three years, given the identified market demand.”

In response to a question from Township Councilman Rajiv Prasad (D-At Large), Poole said that his company has spoken to “operators of smaller sports complexes who are interested,” adding that niche consultants exist whose sole business is to offer on advise on the development of indoor sports complexes.

“With the population density that you have around here, the number of young people that you have in the region as well, and the fact that you are close to Rutgers University. I think it’s a great potential that should be followed up on,” Poole said.

Regarding the corporate business zone in general, Poole said the township should consider renaming the roughly 500-acre area the “Franklin Business and Technology Park.”

“It needs to be branded to connote what you really have,” he said.

New signage and banners should be erected throughout the park, Poole said, “so that once you enter the park, you know you’re there. When you look at some of the bigger business and research parks in the country, they’re successful in part because they’ve themed themselves, and people want to be associated with that. Franklin Township has the opportunity to theme what you already have.”

Poole said that some areas of the corporate business park could be “incentivized” to lure investment by designating them as areas in need of redevelopment. Once so designated, such areas are eligible for financial incentives such as Payments In Lieu Of Taxes, or PILOTs, through which a developer makes flat payments to a town for a set number of years, rather than pay property taxes.

“You have a couple sites where half-empty office buildings are sitting on eight to 10 acres of land, which could be better purposed as light industrial,” he said. “That would bring in more ratables, but also create more jobs.”

“One of the strongest demands for real estate is light industrial,” he said. “You could probably put up 300,000 square feet of retail distribution tomorrow and have most of it filled within a month.”

The corporate office market is still declining, he said, because of the changing ways in which companies do business.

“Where there is a demand for office, it is medical office,” he said. “You’ll see more outpatient medical facilities.”

Poole also suggested expanding the size of the business park, relaxing some zoning requirements, and sprucing the park up by adding things such as sidewalks and making it accessible to bicycles.

Such upgrades are necessary, Poole said, “if you’re going to attract corporate users, who are trying to attract Millennials.”

Finally, a business association comprised of corporate park occupants should be created and should meet quarterly to discuss issues relevant to the park, Poole said. He said the organization could also alert the township to problems in the park.

The Hamilton Street Business District should be re-branded to the “Hamilton Village Center,” Poole said.

“We want to create a more walkable business district,” he said. “We want people to understand that this is a place that you can not only work and shop, but live and walk at night and go out to dinner.”

The roughly 1.2-mile business district – which stretches between Franklin Boulevard and the New Brunswick border – should be divided into three sections, Poole said.

The outer segments, stretching from Franklin Boulevard to DeWald Avenue and from Kee Avenue to Hawthorne Drive, would be transition zones into the center segment, Poole said. That center segment would be considered the “heart” of the Village Center, which should be “compact, lively and walkable,” according to 4Ward’s recommendations.

The Kee to Hawthorne section should be developed to be “a lively, walkable mixed-use district” with more permissive zoning requirements, according to the recommendations.

Franklin Blvd. to DeWald should be developed to have “an array of building types, including houses and some suburban-type commerce on larger parcels along Franklin,” according to the recommendations. “This section is likely to evolve as an active commercial “gateway”/transition district.”

Also recommended is upgrading of lighting, installation of banner poles, crosswalks, seasonal lighting and public art “to heighten the sense of liveliness and welcome,” according to the recommendations.

Development along Hamilton Street could be encouraged by expanding the zone to include some larger Franklin Boulevard parcels, offering “bonus floors” in vertical height for certain considerations and encouraging mixed-use development, according to the recommendations.

But not every ground floor in the district should house retail, Poole said.

“The market may not be able to support retail everywhere you place it,” he said. “The more you spread it out, the weaker is your commercial district; you want to be able to concentrate it and create a critical mass.”

Poole also suggested that parking requirements for Hamilton Street development be relaxed.

“We’re nearly in the age of autonomous cars, and we are in the age of Uber and Lyft,” he said, and that “not as much parking be required as traditionally has been the case.”

The Township Council is expected to formally endorse the report and its recommendations at its Sept. 12 meeting.

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